Dr Monk returns with a research snippet about spices in medieval England
Hello everyone! Good to be back.
The godly Anglo-Saxon Monk has permitted me to do another research snippet. So I thought I would let you all know what I've been up to in recent weeks, and where this has led me in terms of research.
I've been translating the fourteenth-century cookery book known as Forme of Cury, which basically means the 'how-to of cookery'. It was written by the master chef of Richard II.
I'm doing this because this year I'm filming a series of medieval cookery videos, and the recipes being used in these will be some of those from the Forme of Cury.
In fact, I have already filmed a pilot of one of the recipes (Tart de Bry, a cheese tart with ginger spice), and that is presently being edited. However, the recipe proved quite problematic, not least because there are no quantities given! This experience has suggested to me the need to translate all the recipes (close to 200) before proceeding any further with the filming.
So, at the moment I'm about a third of the way through transcribing and translating Forme of Cury's Middle English. I'm working directly from the digital facsimile of the manuscript, which is located in the John Rylands Library in Manchester.
I've now become quite familiar with a range of different ingredients, and I'm particularly fascinated by the variety of spices used. So far I've come across saffron (primarily used as a colourant), fennel seeds, ginger, cinnamon, mace, cloves, sandalwood (used as a colourant), galangal, pepper, anise, alkanet root (used as a colourant), coriander seeds, caraway, and cubebs.
In addition, two spice mixes, known as powder douce ('sweet') and powder fort ('strong') have been regularly mentioned. As far as I can deduce, the content of these mixes is not given in the Ryland's Forme of Cury, so I need to do some further research to identify the likely candidates.
Now I began to wonder which of these spices, most of which were imported into England at the time Forme of Cury was written, were being used in the Anglo-Saxon period (i.e. before the Norman Conquest in 1066); and, moreover, how they were being used. Here's what I've found so far:
Saffron is the dried stigmas and styles ('threads') of the saffron crocus (Crocus sativus). It is mentioned (by the Old English name croh) in the medical text known today as The Old English Herbarium, which survives in four copies, one of which is illustrated, Cotton MS Vitellius C. iii (follow the link to the British Library's digitised facsimile), and which dates to the first quarter of the eleventh century.
Though a translation of a Mediterranean work written in Latin, the fact that the English work includes its own table of contents with numbered chapters for each plant and the ailments it was suitable for suggests it was more than simply an exercise in copying Latin but, rather, was a practical working manual in England (Pollington, p. 70).
Moreover, there is clear evidence that spices from the Mediterranean and beyond were imported in early medieval England, both through commercial trade and via diplomatic and ecclesiastical exchange. For example, the German Church sent pepper, cinnamon and frankincense to Abbess Cuniburg around the year 740 (Pollington, p. 68).
So, if saffron did indeed get as far as England in the Anglo-Saxon period, what was it used for? The Herbarium instructs that it be pounded and mixed with the herb seofenleafe ('seven-leaf'; Latin, Tormentil septifolium) to make a treatment for fotadle ('foot disease'): the resulting juice was smeared on the feet and the promise is made that 'it takes away the pain on the third day' (Pollington, pp. 336-9).
Fennel seeds are twice mentioned in another medical work, known today as Lacnunga ('Cures'). This survives, along with other medical texts, in the British Library manuscript Harley MS 585, which was copied around the year 1000. The Lacnunga text has been described as 'a private collection of jottings of various recipes and cures, as they came to hand, in one location' (Pollington, p. 72).
So, what were fennel seeds used for? Here's the first mention:
Against pain in the loins: fennel seed, green leaf of betony, the lower part of agrimony; pound it to a dust, steep it with sweetened ale, warm it; give it to drink hot, standing upright; let [him] stand a good while. (Pollington, p. 207)
I'm not entirely sure what 'pain in the loins' refers to it, but I have my suspicions that it is rather euphemistic, meaning something to do with the genital organs and/or the urinary tract.
The second occurrence is within a long directive for 'a good morning drink' which is presented pretty much as a cure-all, from headaches and dizziness to dysentery and poisoning! Fennel seed is listed along with thirty other seeds as well as cumin, costmary, pepper, ginger and mastic. The advice is given to make up 'enough dust [powder] in autumn, and use it when the need arises' (Pollington, p. 237).
Stephen Pollington does suggest that fennel seeds may have also been sprinkled on bread because of their rather nice aniseed flavour, but really there is no way of knowing for sure (Pollington, p. 118) as Anglo-Saxon bread recipes don't exist.
In Forme of Cury ginger is used predominantly in its dried, powdered form, though I have come across a recipe that refers to peeling and mincing ginger, indicating that either fresh or rehydrated whole root of ginger was used in fourteenth-century England.
We've just seen how ginger was used in the cure-all recipe of the Lacnunga text. Evidently, this was dried, since the text refers to a 'dust' being made up from the various herbs and spices.
Its mention in another recipe of this text, however, hints at it being used in its fresh form, since 'plants' juices' are referred to. However, as you will see, it isn't entirely clear if ginger is indeed one of the plants that must have been fresh in this recipe.
Moreover, in view of the vast distances ginger would have travelled (it was probably grown in India before being exported to the Mediterranean and beyond), it is perhaps more reasonable to conclude that if the 'juices' include that of ginger root, it is perhaps more likely that its juice was extracted from rehydrated ginger root.
Whatever the case, using ginger to make a salve for wens (tumours or swellings) and nyrwet (hardness of breathing; 'asthma') is a far cry from using it in a fourteenth-century cheese tart recipe (more on that another time):
As a wen-salve: take elecampane and radish, chervil and raven's foot, English turnip and fennel and sage and southernwood and pound them together, and take a good deal of garlic, pound and wring through a cloth into purified honey; when it is thoroughly steeped, then put pepper and zedoary, gallengale and ginger and bark and laurel berries and pellitory – a good deal of each according to its strength; and when it [all] be mixed, the [plants']* juices and the honey, then boil it twice as strong as it was before; then you have a good salve against wens and against asthma. (Pollington, p. 189)
*Pollington gives 'plant's' (genitive singular), but the Old English is genitive plural (þara wyrta), and so I've amended his translation accordingly.
No doubt some of you noticed the use of gallengale (Old English, gallengar) in this salve recipe and, like me, wondered if this is the same as the galangal of Forme of Cury. I haven't yet been able to work this out. Confusing me is the fact that there is a native English plant which goes by the name of galingale; so it may be this, rather than the ginger-related galangal, that is meant. I will get back to you on this.
You will have noticed, too, that another spice I've discovered in the Forme of Cury is mentioned in this salve, namely pepper. I will take a more comprehensive look at pepper in a future research snippet post. Since it is used in numerous cures, it deserves some special attention.
Also in this forthcoming post I will address the other spices I mentioned at the outset, including cinnamon, alkanet and coriander seeds. Until then!
Work cited: Stephen Pollington, Leechcraft: Early English Charms, Plantlore, and Healing (Anglo-Saxon Books, 2000).